A Tribute to R.C. Sproul

On December 14, 2017 Dr. R.C. Sproul entered into the presence of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Dr. Sproul was a graduate of Westminster College (B.A. in Philosophy), Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (B.D.), Free University of Amsterdam (Drs.) and received additional recognition from Geneva College (Litt. D) and Grove City College (L.H.D.) in 1993.

Dr. Sproul was ordained in 1965 by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and taught at Westminster College (1965 – 1966), Gordon College (1966 – 1968), Conwell School of Theology (1968 – 1969), Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (1971 – 1981) and held the John Trimble, Sr. Chair of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (1987 – 1995). He served on the Executive Committee for the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1977 – 1983). He held various leadership roles with the Coalition for Christian Outreach (1971 – 1976), Evangelism Explosion III, International (1980 – 1981), and Prison Fellowship (1979 – 1984).

In addition to several other teaching roles at theological Seminaries, including Knox Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary, Dr. Sproul served on the pastoral staff at Saint Andrews Chapel in Sanford, Florida.

Dr. Sproul was the founder and Chairman of Ligonier Ministries, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing theological education for the church. Ligonier provided and continues to provide a myriad of teaching resources by Dr. Sproul and others, which are primarily directed toward the laity.

Many tributes will be posted for several days and weeks to come which will celebrate Sproul’s life and legacy. My small contribution will be personal in nature as I recount the ways that my life was impacted by his ministry.

The Sovereignty of God in Salvation

R.C. Sproul was greatly used by God as he reintroduced Reformed theology to the evangelical church. He articulated the doctrines of grace with passion, courage, conviction, and authority. He spoke about the depth of our depravity and reminded us that the “flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63). Indeed, as Luther said, “Nothing is not a little something!” “Sin is cosmic treason,” writes Sproul. “Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself. Have you ever considered the deeper implications of the slightest sin, of the most minute peccadillo? What are we saying to our Creator when we disobey Him at the slightest point? We are saying ‘no’ to the righteousness of God.” R.C. Sproul powerfully proclaimed the hideous effects of sin on a fallen race.

He not only spoke of the depth of depravity; he proclaimed the beauty of sovereign grace. He helped us understand the importance of election and predestination. Chosen by God served an especially important purpose in my life. This book was a theological battering ram. Chosen by God smashed my preconceived Arminian notions. It shattered my Semi-Pelagian understanding of free will and petty arguments against Calvinism.

Positively, Chosen by God elevated my understanding of God’s sovereignty. However, it would be more accurate to say that Sproul catapulted my view of God’s sovereignty into the stratosphere. “If there is any part of creation outside of God’s sovereignty,” writes Sproul, “then God is simply not sovereign. If God is not sovereign, then God is not God.”

Chosen by God helped shift my understanding of mercy into biblical categories. Previously, I held the view that God was obligated to offer mercy to sinners. But Sproul’s theological battering ram obliterated my presuppositions about mercy. I’ll never forget reading these words: “If God is not pleased to dispense his saving mercy to all men, then I must submit to his holy and righteous decision. God is never, never obligated to be merciful to sinners. That is the point we must stress if we are to grasp the full measure of God’s grace.”

R.C. Sproul captivated us with the wonder of effectual grace. And he spoke often of the perseverance of the saints, or better yet, as he was fond of saying, “the preservation of the saints.” Indeed, “the doctrine teaches that if you have saving faith you will never lose it, and if you lose it, you never had it.”

R.C. not only equipped a new generation of Reformed thinkers; he alerted the body of Christ to theological error. He lamented the rise of theological wolves and deceitful hucksters. And he warned us about the Pelagian Captivity of the Church. Sproul notes, “One thing is clear: that you can be purely Pelagian and be completely welcome in the evangelical movement today. It’s not simply that the camel sticks his nose into the tent; he doesn’t just come in the tent — he kicks the owner of the tent out.”

The first time I saw Dr. Sproul preach at a live event, I stood in line for at least an hour to say “hello” and get a signature in his latest book, Not a Chance. It was a typical scene where several hundred hungry theology students gathered for a chance to visit for a moment with one of the premier theological minds of the day. Sproul was signing books and carrying on in casual conversations. When my time came, I uttered these words: “Dr. Sproul, I want to thank you for your ministry. Before I began reading your books, I was a total Arminian.” Those words caught his attention. He lowered his reading glasses and looked me straight in the eye: “Weren’t we all Arminians at one time!” The crowd roared but R.C.’s infectious laugh overcame the whole room.

Dr. Sproul confronted the love affair with free will in the church: “The semi-Pelagian doctrine of free will prevalent in the evangelical world today is a pagan view that denies the captivity of the human heart to sin. It underestimates the stranglehold that sin has on us.”

Pursuing Church History

Dr. Sproul awakened in me a love for church history that was previously non-existent in my life. He had a special gift for storytelling that invited listeners to enter the world of Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and Edwards. His passion for uncovering the treasures of church history was something to behold. These giants of the faith came to life when R.C. spoke of their courage, tenacity, and faithfulness in proclaiming the unadulterated Word of God.

Passion for the Holiness of God

R.C. Sproul authored at least sixty books, most of which I digested over the past thirty years. Those books are filled with highlights, notes, and observations. But the book that impacted me above all was The Holiness of God. R.C. writes, “We fear God because He is holy. Our fear is not the healthy fear that the Bible encourages us to have. Our fear is servile fear, a fear born of dread. God is too great for us; He is too awesome. He makes difficult demands on us. He is the Mysterious Stranger who threatens our security. In His presence we quake and tremble. Meeting Him personally may be our greatest trauma.”

The Holiness of God caught me completely by surprise in my early twenties. My mind was transfixed. My heart was warmed. And my life was forever changed as I poured over the pages of this book which will no doubt be in print for many years to come.

Defender of the Gospel

Finally, R.C. Sproul was a teacher, preacher, and defender of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He articulated the deep realities of the gospel in simple terms and invited anyone with ears to hear to come along for the ride. R.C reminded us that we are “saved by faith alone but that faith is never alone.” He made sure that we memorized Luther’s famous line that, “justification is that article upon which the church stands or falls.”

It is difficult to summarize the life of a man who carried such a huge weight of influence for over thirty years. A few short paragraphs hardly seem fitting for a man who helped change the face of evangelicalism.

In a recent sermon, Steven Lawson admonished his audience, “Give us some men who know the truth.” R.C. Sproul was such a man. R.C. taught the truth, defended the truth, and worked tirelessly to proclaim the truth to the nations.

Dr. R.C. Sproul (1939 – 2017) fought the good fight. He finished the race. And he kept the faith. Enter into the joy of your Savior where you will reign with him unto all eternity.

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Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief – John Frame (2013)

a frameHow does one review a systematic theology by one of the leading minds of the evangelical world?  How does one summarize the thoughts of a 1,100-page book that towers with truth; a book that takes readers to the top of the theological mountain?  Anyone who attempts to read and devour Systematic Theology by John Frame will be faced with such questions.  Indeed, while the oxygen is scarce at the top of this theological peak, readers will be delighted to enjoy the view that Dr. Frame presents.  As one might expect, every branch of systematic theology is explored.  The author invites readers on a journey which introduces them to God who relates to creatures as their covenant Lord.  The three lordship attributes are articulated throughout the book – control, authority, and presence.

Several thoughts help capture the essence of this incredible book.  While some will be put off by such thoughts, my hope is that a majority of readers will be motivated and inspired to pick up Dr. Frame’s work.  This powerful book is marked by at least ten features:

  1. It is God-Centered
  2. It is Scripture-soaked
  3. It is unashamedly Calvinistic
  4. It is conservative
  5. It exposes liberal scholarship and lays bare its erroneous presuppositions
  6. It is biblical
  7. It is mind-penetrating
  8. It is heart-softening
  9. It is personal
  10. It leads readers to worship God

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief by John Frame is a theological tour de force.   This weighty volume is drenched with Scripture and is drowning with biblical wisdom.  I cannot think of any other writer who has influenced my thinking, outside of Jonathan Edwards himself.  This work is a true labor of love, a gift to the church, and a tool that will sharpen the minds of Christ-followers and serve as a heart-tenderizer for many years to come!

Highly recommended

5 stars

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering – Timothy Keller

kellerI have yet to meet a person who enjoys pain and suffering.  Yet suffering is a part of the warp and woof of life.  It is not a part of God’s original intent for creation.  Since Adam’s first sin, pain and suffering have been an abnormal part of the cosmos.  Suffering is an unwelcome guest who bullies his way to the table and makes demands – much like a  soldier on a bloody battlefield.

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller addresses this topic with candor and clarity.  Keller leaves no stone unturned here.  The book is organized into three sections:

Understanding the Furnace

Keller introduces the problem of pain and suffering and explores some of the philosophical challenges that Christ-followers must understand and address.

“Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity,” writes Keller.  Yet our culture has a tendency to respond to suffering in ways that are helpful and wrongheaded.  The moralist response to suffering is to “do good.”  The fatalist’s response to suffering is to “hang in there” and “endure.”  The dualist response to suffering is “purified faithfulness.”  And the secular response to suffering is focussed on “technique.”  A combination of these erroneous responses to suffering litter the current milieu and produce a generation of confused and discouraged people.

Keller rightly alerts readers to the importance of worldviews and their relation to the subject of pain and suffering.  Ultimately, the matter of pain and suffering is a matter of faith.  “Faith,” writes Keller “is the promise of God.”  He adds, “We can be fully accepted and counted legally righteous in God’s sight through faith in Christ, solely by free grace … It means freedom from fear of the future, from any anxiety about your eternal destiny.  It is the most liberating idea possible and it ultimately enables you to face all suffering, knowing that because of the cross, God is absolutely for you and that because of the resurrection, everything will be all right in the end.”

Facing the Furnace

Part two provides readers with the theological muscle – a crucial part of the battle.  Keller unpacks the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and provides a painful but biblical rationale for the role of suffering the lives of people.

At the heart of this discussion is an important look at the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The author summarizes, “That is, in order to satisfy justice, in order to punish sin so that in love he could forgive and receive us, God had to bear the penalty for sin within himself.  God the Son took the punishment we deserved, including being cut off from the Father.  And so God took into his own self, his own heart, an infinite agony – out of love for us.”

Keller’s treatment in part two travels great distances to help resolve the problem of evil – the so-called “Achilles heal” of the Christian faith: “So while Christianity never claims to be able to offer a full explanation of all God’s reasons behind every instance of evil and suffering – it does have a final answer to it.  The answer will be given at the end of history and all who hear it and see its fulfillment will find it completely satisfying, infinitely sufficient.”

While Keller never attempts to provide a comprehensive answer to the problem of evil, his treatment of this thorny subject is some of the best in print.  He may not satisfy the disciples of David Hume, Voltaire, or Sam Harris – but he does give ample ammunition for believers who are looking for honest answers.

Walking With God in the Furnace

Parts one and two explore the philosophical and theological angles of pain and suffering.  Part three helps readers with practical application.  They are given practical tools for “walking with God in the furnace.”  The very notion of walking with God in the furnace assumes pain – pain that some are unwilling to admit.  But practical experience reveals that we live in a broken world; a world which has been torn to shreds by the consequences of sin.

Keller urges readers to walk with God in suffering: “If you go into the furnace without the gospel, it will not be possible to find God in there.  You will be sure he has done terrible wrong or you have and you will feel all alone.  Going into the fire without the gospel is the most dangerous thing anyone can do.”  So the gospel is the first and last defense of every Christ-follower; indeed it is the hope of the watching world.

Second, the author stresses the importance of weeping during seasons of adversity.  Elijah serves as an example of a man who cried out in great agony.  He was a man unafraid of weeping.  Such an approach is not only honest – it is a sign of emotional health.

Third, Keller demonstrates the need for trusting in God during days of pain and adversity.    Joseph is portrayed as an example of a man who trusted: If the story of Joseph and the whole of the Bible is true, then anything that comes into your life is something that, as painful as it is, you need in some way.”  Jesus too demonstrated trust in his Father and points believers in the identical direction.  Keller continues to alert readers to other tools that they should utilize during their dark days.

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering is a watershed book that deserves to be read.  Christ-followers will no doubt be encouraged by this Christ-exalting book; a book which drives readers to the cross of the suffering Savior.

Highly recommended!

The Eclipse of the Gospel and the School of Hard Knox

A Powerful Man

I stood in the shadow of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland. Clouds gathered overhead and people walked curiously through the front doors. Here, the famous reformer, John Knox faithfully tended the flock until his death in 1572.

Once inside this massive cathedral, I was transfixed by the sheer beauty of this place. I was overwhelmed by the architecture – the awe-inspiring flying buttresses that point worshippers to the transcendence of God. A single elevated pulpit is located in the center of the sanctuary. It stands strategically above the worshippers, which symbolically places God’s Word above sinful creatures.

John Knox brought reform to Scotland and re-energized a nation that had all but forgotten God. Knox helped awaken a nation that neglected God’s truth which led to a virtual eclipse of the gospel. Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes Knox as a man who preached “with the fire of God in his bones and in his belly!  He preached as they all preached, with fire and power, alarming sermons, convicting sermons, humbling sermons, converting sermons, and the face of Scotland was changed …” Simply put, the faithful preaching of Knox brought much needed reform to the Scottish landscape and renewed evangelical fervor to the church.

John Knox courageously raised the banner of the gospel and defended the truths of the Protestant Reformation. He was unashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16) and fearlessly proclaimed the Word of God. He stood boldly and with Peter and the apostles, obeyed God rather then men (Acts 5:29). Indeed, Knox is a true exemplar of faithfulness in the face of adversity.

A Personal Lesson

As I made my way out of St. Giles, my mind was filled with stories surrounding the life and ministry of John Knox. As I turned to gaze again at the rising fortress where Knox served the Lord, a thought occurred to me. It was not a new thought. Rather, it was a lesson that has moved me for many years now but in this moment, the lesson was magnified as I scanned the edifice of St. Giles. The lesson is this: church history matters.

It seems like such a simple lesson. But it is a lesson that many contemporary Christians are unfamiliar with. Even as a young Bible College student, I failed to understand the importance of church history. The buildings seemed so old and the names were so hard to pronounce. It is a sentiment that is not unique to me. I hear it all the time. I hear the cruel remarks about John Calvin and the caricatures that biased people have cooked up about Jonathan Edwards. But when we move past all the petty talk and face reality, we realize that church history truly does matter.

A Pivotal Mindset

First, Church history matters because when we forget the past, we fail to learn valuable lessons that impact our lives. George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So Christians who minimize the importance of church history are vulnerable to the theological error that plagued the church in the past. Additionally, they repeat the sins committed by our forefathers.

For example, Arius committed a fatal theological error by teaching that Christ was the first created being. This theological controversy which erupted in 318 A.D. led to a series of erroneous Arian propositions:

  1. The Son was created by the Father.
  2. The Son owed his existence to the will of the Father.
  3. The Son was not eternal, that is, there was a time when he was not.

Such teaching stood diametrically opposed to Scripture and was outside the bounds of orthodoxy. In the end, Arius rejected the full deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Second, Church history matters because it strengthens our faith. Scripture instructs, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Heb. 13:7, ESV) The term remember is a present imperative verb that means, “keep thinking about,” or “call to mind.”

Remembering godly leaders in church history is not optional; it is a command in sacred Scripture. The author of Hebrews does not limit the scope of these “leaders” to men like Moses, Abraham, Paul or Peter. He instructs us to remember leaders “who spoke to you the word of God.” So remembering leaders like Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, Luther, and Spurgeon is an important part of the Christian pilgrimage. We do well to follow in their paths by boldly proclaiming the truth and living faithfully before the Lord, even when our detractors heap insults on us for faithfully remembering these heroes of the faith.

Third, Church history matters because God ordained specific events that lead to the worldwide spread of his glory. Church history truly is “his story.” Whenever we discount history, we subtly stand in judgment over God and claim to know a better way. Whenever we disparage church history and subtly place ourselves in a position that was never ours to enjoy. Indeed, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3, ESV).

The School of Hard Knox

John Knox was a faithful man who led a gospel-centered life, according to the grace that was given him by his Savior. His relentless preaching helped drive away the darkness and restore the light of the gospel to his land. Almost five hundred years later, St. Giles still stands but the truth has fallen on hard times. Once again, the gospel is being eclipsed by man-made philosophy and foolishness.

As Christ-followers, we must learn well the lessons that church history teaches us. When we forget the past we falter in our faith and fail to exalt the sovereign purposes of our Savior. When we forget the past, we become comfortable stumbling around in the dark and begin to glory in our ignorance.

Let us become educated in the School of Hard Knox. And may the gospel shine brightly again. “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14, ESV). And may we recover our love of truth and our passion for the gospel.

What Can a 508-Year Old Man Teach Us?

July 10, 2017 marks the 508th birthday of John Calvin.  But the streamers and balloons are nowhere to be found.  Simply put, we live in a day that is so wrapped up in technology and new inventions that we tend to forget the lessons of the past, especially the lessons of dead guy.

Calvin’s life was a pilgrimage that was characterized by God’s providential grace.  It was God’s providential grace that led him from place to place, equipping him for a lifetime of ministry.  It was God’s providential grace that sustained him during his period of exile and sheltered him through the storm.  It was God’s providential grace that empowered him to write and preach and shepherd the people of God for the glory of God.  It was God’s providential grace that brought Calvin “through many dangers, toils and snares.”  Indeed, it was God’s providential grace that rescued his soul from hell and seated him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).  And it was God’s providential grace that led Calvin to assume a particular posture that is best articulated in Isaiah 66:1-2.

Notice three things about the Genevan Reformer.  First, Calvin was a humble man.  C.J. Mahaney lays bare the heart of a humble man: “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.”  And the Scriptures demand this kind of humility.  “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Pet. 3:8, ESV).

Calvin was humble before his God.  He understood that he was a recipient of God’s grace (Rom. 3:24) and that he had been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9).  Consequently, he understood that his only boast was in the cross-work of Christ (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 6:14).  Calvin understood the absolute contrast between the sinfulness of man and the majesty of God, what many have referred to as the Creator-creature distinction.  He writes, “Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”

Calvin was humble before people.  He understood that humility is the foundation of Christian character.  The libertines of the 16th century were naming their dogs after Calvin – but Calvin remained humble despite the hatred hoisted upon him.  Calvin opines, “I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom, ‘The foundation of our philosophy is humility’ and still more with those of Augustine.  If asked, ‘What are the precepts of Christianity?’ I will answer, ‘First, humility, second and third humility.”

Second, Calvin was a contrite man.  The contrite is one who is “stricken, smitten, or crushed in spirit.”  John Calvin was a man of Christ-exalting contrition.  His contrition was Christ-exalting because he knew that Christ was the One he had offended and that Christ alone could free him from his sin.  No work could forgive him, no prayer could forgive him; no priest could forgive him.

As beneficiaries of the Protestant Reformation, this is a truth we too often take for granted.  Even worse, some professing Evangelicals have begun to subtly fall under the spell of the Roman Catholic Church and either forget free grace or ignore it all together.  Perhaps it is time for a new Reformation; a radical rekindling of the precious truths that drove Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and Knox to their knees in contrition as they celebrated the free grace that was theirs in Christ alone!

Third, Calvin trembled at God’s Word.  He revered the truth of God’s Word.  Steve Lawson adds, “Calvin stood firmly on the chief cornerstone of the Reformation – sola Scriptura, or ‘Scripture alone.’  He believed Scripture was the verbum Dei – the Word of God – and it alone should regulate church life, not popes, councils, or traditions.  Sola Scriptura identified the Bible as the sole authority of God in His church, and Calvin wholeheartedly embraced it, insisting that the Bible was the authoritative, inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God.”

Calvin responded to the truth of God’s Word.  He was a sinful man who had a heart that desperately sought to respond obediently to the Word of God.  To that end, he preached the Word of God faithfully with all the passion he could muster!

Calvin rejoiced in the truth of God’s Word – even difficult doctrines.  He rejoiced in difficult doctrines like predestination and conscious eternal punishment.  He rejoiced in mysterious doctrines like the Trinity and the hypostatic union.  And he rejoiced in paradoxical doctrines like the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

So what can a 508-year-old man teach us?

Calvin understood that people are transformed by truth

We live in an age where technique is king and pragmatism is queen.  The church has fallen prey to this vicious cycle.  We tend to do what works and invest in what brings results.  Steve Lawson writes, “The church is always looking for better methods in order to reach the world.  But God is looking for better men who will devote themselves to his biblically mandated method for advancing his kingdom, namely, preaching – and not just any kind of preaching, but expository preaching.”  In a day when preaching is being downplayed and theology is being ignored, we need to remember what Calvin understood, namely, people are transformed by truth.

Calvin understood and modeled the need for courage in times of adversity and persecution

Calvin lived in a time when Protestants were being burned at the stake because they were being transformed by the truth.  He was committed to boldly proclaiming the truth no matter what the cost.    Calvin adds, “If, while conscious of our innocence, we are deprived of our substance by the wickedness of man, we are, no doubt, humanly speaking, reduced to poverty; but in truth our riches in heaven are increased: if driven from our homes, we have a more welcome reception into the family of God; if vexed and despised, we are more firmly rooted in Christ; if stigmatized by disgrace and ignominy, we have a higher place in the kingdom of God; and if we are slain, entrance is thereby given us to eternal life.  The Lord having set such a price upon us, let us be ashamed to estimate ourselves at less than the shadowy and evanescent allurements of the present life.”

Calvin reminds us of the sinfulness of humans and the utter need for God’s grace

The flaws in Calvin himself remind us of the sinfulness of sin.  He was deeply aware of his own sin.  But he was also acutely aware of the reality of grace.  His life bears witness to this: He was simul iustus et peccator – simultaneously righteous and sinful..

Calvin reminds us what one man on a mission can accomplish in Christ’s strength

My good friend and colleague, Pastor Wayne Pickens rightly says, “God uses people to reach people.”  God used an ordinary man for an extraordinary purpose.  Or as David Hall writes, “A single man with heart aflame changed the world.”

Calvin reminds us of the sufficiency of Christ and his work on the cross for sinners

The cry of Calvin’s heart was the Lord Jesus Christ.  He constantly pointed sinners to Christ and his cross.

May the life of John Calvin serve as an inspiration to live the Christian life with vibrancy to the glory of God.  May his courage embolden each of us in the difficult days ahead.  When the days grow dark, persecutions escalate, and our freedoms begin to erode, may we remember the motto still etched in Genevan stone, “post tenebras lux,” after darkness light.  May his humility, contrition, and trembling before the Word of God mark our lives as well.  And may the contemporary pulpit be a reflection of Calvin’s pulpit; may men of God stand behind the sacred desk and faithfully deliver to unchanging truths of Scripture so that saints might be strengthened, edified, convicted, encouraged, and equipped!

Calvin agrees, “Let them edify the body of Christ.  Let them devastate Satan’s reign.  Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious.  Let them bind and loose, thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the Word of God.”

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering – Timothy Keller (2013)

kellerI have yet to meet a person who enjoys pain and suffering.  Yet suffering is a part of the warp and woof of life.  It is not a part of God’s original intent for creation.  Since Adam’s first sin, pain and suffering have been an abnormal part of the cosmos.  Suffering is an unwelcome guest who bullies his way to the table and makes demands – much like a  soldier on a bloody battlefield.

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller addresses this topic with candor and clarity.  Keller leaves no stone unturned here.  The book is organized into three sections:

Understanding the Furnace

Keller introduces the problem of pain and suffering and explores some of the philosophical challenges that Christ-followers must understand and address.

“Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity,” writes Keller.  Yet our culture has a tendency to respond to suffering in ways that are helpful and wrongheaded.  The moralist response to suffering is to “do good.”  The fatalist’s response to suffering is to “hang in there” and “endure.”  The dualist response to suffering is “purified faithfulness.”  And the secular response to suffering is focussed on “technique.”  A combination of these erroneous responses to suffering litter the current milieu and produce a generation of confused and discouraged people.

Keller rightly alerts readers to the importance of worldviews and their relation to the subject of pain and suffering.  Ultimately, the matter of pain and suffering is a matter of faith.  “Faith,” writes Keller “is the promise of God.”  He adds, “We can be fully accepted and counted legally righteous in God’s sight through faith in Christ, solely by free grace … It means freedom from fear of the future, from any anxiety about your eternal destiny.  It is the most liberating idea possible and it ultimately enables you to face all suffering, knowing that because of the cross, God is absolutely for you and that because of the resurrection, everything will be all right in the end.”

Facing the Furnace

Part two provides readers with the theological muscle – a crucial part of the battle.  Keller unpacks the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and provides a painful but biblical rationale for the role of suffering the lives of people.

At the heart of this discussion is an important look at the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The author summarizes, “That is, in order to satisfy justice, in order to punish sin so that in love he could forgive and receive us, God had to bear the penalty for sin within himself.  God the Son took the punishment we deserved, including being cut off from the Father.  And so God took into his own self, his own heart, an infinite agony – out of love for us.”

Keller’s treatment in part two travels great distances to help resolve the problem of evil – the so-called “Achilles heal” of the Christian faith: “So while Christianity never claims to be able to offer a full explanation of all God’s reasons behind every instance of evil and suffering – it does have a final answer to it.  The answer will be given at the end of history and all who hear it and see its fulfillment will find it completely satisfying, infinitely sufficient.”

While Keller never attempts to provide a comprehensive answer to the problem of evil, his treatment of this thorny subject is some of the best in print.  He may not satisfy the disciples of David Hume, Voltaire, or Sam Harris – but he does give ample ammunition for believers who are looking for honest answers.

Walking With God in the Furnace

Parts one and two explore the philosophical and theological angles of pain and suffering.  Part three helps readers with practical application.  They are given practical tools for “walking with God in the furnace.”  The very notion of walking with God in the furnace assumes pain – pain that some are unwilling to admit.  But practical experience reveals that we live in a broken world; a world which has been torn to shreds by the consequences of sin.

Keller urges readers to walk with God in suffering: “If you go into the furnace without the gospel, it will not be possible to find God in there.  You will be sure he has done terrible wrong or you have and you will feel all alone.  Going into the fire without the gospel is the most dangerous thing anyone can do.”  So the gospel is the first and last defense of every Christ-follower; indeed it is the hope of the watching world.

Second, the author stresses the importance of weeping during seasons of adversity.  Elijah serves as an example of a man who cried out in great agony.  He was a man unafraid of weeping.  Such an approach is not only honest – it is a sign of emotional health.

Third, Keller demonstrates the need for trusting in God during days of pain and adversity.    Joseph is portrayed as an example of a man who trusted: If the story of Joseph and the whole of the Bible is true, then anything that comes into your life is something that, as painful as it is, you need in some way.”  Jesus too demonstrated trust in his Father and points believers in the identical direction.  Keller continues to alert readers to other tools that they should utilize during their dark days.

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering is a watershed book that deserves to be read.  Christ-followers will no doubt be encouraged by this Christ-exalting book; a book which drives readers to the cross of the suffering Savior.

Highly recommended!

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief – John Frame (2013)

a frameHow does one review a systematic theology by one of the leading minds of the evangelical world?  How does one summarize the thoughts of a 1,100-page book that towers with truth; a book that takes readers to the top of the theological mountain?  Anyone who attempts to read and devour Systematic Theology by John Frame will be faced with such questions.  Indeed, while the oxygen is scarce at the top of this theological peak, readers will be delighted to enjoy the view that Dr. Frame presents.  As one might expect, every branch of systematic theology is explored.  The author invites readers on a journey which introduces them to God who relates to creatures as their covenant Lord.  The three lordship attributes are articulated throughout the book – control, authority, and presence.

Several thoughts help capture the essence of this incredible book.  While some will be put off by such thoughts, my hope is that a majority of readers will be motivated and inspired to pick up Dr. Frame’s work.  This powerful book is marked by at least ten features:

  1. It is God-Centered
  2. It is Scripture-soaked
  3. It is unashamedly Calvinistic
  4. It is conservative
  5. It exposes liberal scholarship and lays bare its erroneous presuppositions
  6. It is biblical
  7. It is mind-penetrating
  8. It is heart-softening
  9. It is personal
  10. It leads readers to worship God

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief by John Frame is a theological tour de force.   This weighty volume is drenched with Scripture and is drowning with biblical wisdom.  I cannot think of any other writer who has influenced my thinking, outside of Jonathan Edwards himself.  This work is a true labor of love, a gift to the church, and a tool that will sharpen the minds of Christ-followers and serve as a heart-tenderizer for many years to come!

Highly recommended

5 stars